A sign of change at Gwanghwamun?

The Cultural Heritage Administration is at the center of controversy after announcing plans to take down a sign penned by former President Park Chung-hee located at Gwanghwamun, the southern gate of Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul.

The administration plans on hanging in its place a sign written in hanja (Chinese characters) compiled from the handwriting of King Jeongjo (1752-1800), the 22nd king of the Joseon Dynasty.

Its head Yoo Hong-jun announced three days ago that it was taking measures to remove the “Gwanghwamun” sign in Park’s handwriting as part of palace restoration projects.

“The current sign does not match with the characteristics of Gyeongbok Palace and compared to the original hanja sign, it is written backwards so we have decided to change it,” said an official at the cultural properties administration, which oversees the restoration and preservation of the nation’s cultural properties. In contrast to modern Korean, signs composed in hanja were traditionally written from right to left or top to bottom.

The administration is drawing fire from conservatives over its decision to replace the marker at Gwanghwamun, considered by many as the spiritual center of the capital. Conservatives are abuzz with suspicions that the decision has political motivations behind it. The Chosun Ilbo, a conservative daily newspaper, featured an article on its front page yesterday claiming that Yoo had likened President Roh Moo-hyun to the reform-minded King Jeongjo.

While giving a tour of Changdeok Palace to the president last October, Yoo was said to have remarked to Roh that he shared three characteristics with the late Joseon Dynasty ruler: upholding reform as his motto, unsuccessfully attempting to move the capital and seeking out the advice of young scholars.

Yoo responded to the newspaper’s allegations, saying, “It’s true that I compared the president to King Jeongjo. But that is not the reason why we are trying to change the Gwanghwamun sign, nor are there any political reasons behind it.”

The administration plans to make the switch on August 15, to mark the 60th anniversary of Liberation Day. The decision must first be approved by a separate cultural heritage board. A sign by Park has already been taken down at Hwaryeongjeon, a palace housing a shrine to Jeongjo in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province.

King Jeongjo did not reside in Gyeongbok Palace but lived at Gyeonghui Palace and later moved to Changdeok Palace, where he established Gyujeonggak, a royal library, in 1776, the first year of his reign. He also built Hwaseong Fortress in honor of his father, crown prince Sa-do Sae-ja.

The current wooden sign hanging at Gwanghwamun is written in Korean characters and was made in 1969. The three hanja characters in Gwanghwamun form the meaning, “Bestowing the great virtues of a king upon the nation and its people.” The original sign was said to have been written by nobleman painter Jeong Hak-kyo (1832-1914).

Placed at the center of a gate’s beam near the roof, signs or “hyeonpan” were typically written by important individuals to denote certain characteristics of a building. Signs were first used during the Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C.-688 A.D.). During the Joseon Dynasty they were used to mark temples, palaces, Confucian academies and even ordinary residences.

The current “Gwanghwamun” sign (above) penned in Korean letters by late President Park Chung-hee and a new sign written in Chinese characters compiled from the handwriting of Joseon Dynasty King Jeongjo


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